In the movie Gladiator (2000), starring Russell Crowe (as the general who became a slave who became a gladiator who defied an emperor), there are many great scenes, but there’s one in particular worthy of note. This is just before Russell Crowe, as Maximus, is about to fight in the arena. He is disgusted by the senseless brutality of the games. The late Oliver Reed, as Proximo, who manages a contingent of gladiators (the one including Maximus), is speaking to him about the Emperor Commodus.
He says of Commodus (played by Joaquin Phoenix), “He knows too well how to manipulate the mob.” Maximus angrily responds, pointing toward the arena, “Marcus Aurelius had a dream that was Rome, Proximo. This is not it. This is not it!” Unfazed, Proximo shouts at Maximus as he storms away, “Marcus Aurelius is dead, Maximus. We mortals are but shadows and dust. Shadows and dust, Maximus!”
In the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, which falls on the 5th of March this year, there are the powerful words which accompany the imposition of ashes, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, this is the prayer that precedes the imposition:
“Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth. May these ashes be for us a sign of our mortality and penitence, and a reminder that only by your gracious gift are we given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior.”
Proximo and Ash Wednesday, in describing humans as “dust,” seem to be saying the same thing. And at one level, both of them are. All of us will “shuffle off this mortal coil.” Still, with Proximo, there is a sense of resignation, a sense of hopelessness. Ash Wednesday agrees that yes, we are dust, but that is a statement filled with hope. That is so, because “only by [God’s] gracious gift” is this dust “given everlasting life.”
Still, even setting this wondrous reality aside for a moment, what’s wrong with being dust? Remember where we came from. We’re reminded of our origin, as beings of this planet, in the heart of a sun. Astronomy tells us that everything, everywhere, was created inside a star. We are creatures of star dust.
In a few days, as we embark on our Lenten journey, remember that we are star dust that has become aware of itself. We are star dust that is loved by its Creator.
Remember that you are dust!
(The image is of Pillar and Jets HH 901/902 from heritage.stsci.edu/2010/13/big.html)